License to Kill

The accelerating use of drone weapons has opened a new chapter in the history of warfare. Since 2009 the CIA has launched 239 drone strikes into Pakistan,[1] while the Pentagon and its Special Operations commands have fired an unknown number of drone missiles into Afghanistan, Yemen, and other countries. The U.S. military launched 145 drone strikes during the recent NATO operation in Libya,[2] but the primary mission and role of these weapons is the targeted killing of alleged terrorist suspects. The Pentagon and the CIA have created an extensive drone infrastructure that includes several operational hubs in the United States and clandestine bases in at least six countries on two continents.[3] Drone strikes in Pakistan were suspended in November 2011 because of deteriorating relations between Washington and Islamabad,[4] but U.S. leaders remain committed to increased use of these weapons.

More War?

The rise of drone warfare has stirred strong passions and sparked a vigorous debate about the morality of unmanned weapons systems. The first and most important question is whether drone technology makes war more likely. Are decisionmakers more prone to employ military force if they have accurate weapons that are easier to use and do not risk the lives of their service members? The use of these weapons creates the false impression that war can be fought cheaply and at lower risk. They transform the very meaning of war from an act of national sacrifice and mobilization to a distant, almost unnoticeable process of robotic strikes against a secretive “kill list.” Do these factors lower the political threshold for going to war?

On the surface the question seems naïve. Political scientists argue that decisions about going to war are made on the basis of strategic necessity and perceived threats to security. The act of war is not determined by the type of weapon available. As the eminent political theorist Hans Morgenthau famously said, referring to nuclear weapons, people “do not fight because they have arms. They have arms because they deem it necessary to fight.”[5]

On the other hand, the availability of a particular class of weaponry can influence judgments on the likely costs and viability of military action. U.S. political leaders are able to imagine intervening militarily in other countries because they have advanced weapons systems designed for that purpose.[6] The possession of drone technology increases the temptation to intervene because it removes the risks associated with putting boots on the ground or bombing indiscriminately from the air. Drone systems are “seductive,” writes law professor Mary Ellen O’Connell, because they lower the political and psychological barriers to killing.[7] They induce a false faith in the efficacy and morality of armed attack that could create a greater readiness to use force.

A March 2011 report from the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre of the U.K. Ministry of Defence concluded that the availability of drone weapons was indeed a factor in the decision of British leaders to participate in military operations in Pakistan and Yemen. In its study the Center found that manned aircraft and commando raids could have been used for the selected missions but were rejected as too risky. The decision to use force was “totally a function of the existence of an unmanned capability—it is unlikely that a similar scale of force would be used if this capability were not available.” The report urged “removing some of the horror” of these weapons so that “we do not risk losing our controlling humanity and make war more likely.”[8]

A greater readiness to use force may also result from the physical and psychological distance that separates the launching of a strike from its bloody impact. Robotic technology removes the person from the emotional equation of war, reducing human targets to images on a computer screen. This has stretched to the maximum what writer P.W. Singer describes as the disconnection between war and society.[9] Scholar Mary Dudziak agrees, “Drones are a technological step that further isolates the American people from military action, undermining political checks.”[10] U.N. Special Rapporteur Philip Alston warns against “a ‘PlayStation’ mentality to killing” that may induce public callousness and susceptibility to claims about costless warfare.[11]

Any development that makes war appear to be easier or cheaper is deeply troubling. It reduces the political inhibitions against the use of deadly violence. It threatens to weaken the moral presumption against the use of force that is at the heart of the just war doctrine.


Claims about civilian casualties from drone strikes have been hotly contested. Senior White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan asserted in June 2011 that for most of the previous year “there has not been a single collateral death” from drone strikes in Pakistan[12]—this despite press reports and complaints from Pakistani officials to the contrary. Precise information about civilian casualties is shrouded in secrecy, but a report from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an independent university-based non-profit in the U.K., sheds important light on the subject. The Bureau has developed the most comprehensive available data on U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan by compiling and painstakingly cross-checking available reports from media, government, and firsthand sources. Their figures show that civilian casualties occur in approximately one fifth of U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan. Since the drone war began in Pakistan in 2004, more than 2,300 people have been killed and at least 1,150 wounded in these strikes. The Bureau estimates that the dead could include as many as 780 civilians, including as many as 175 children.[13]

U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan are prone to special problems of human error. They rely on uncertain human intelligence from agents in the country’s rugged northwest territory. The local informants the U.S. depends upon in the region are “notoriously unreliable,” a former CIA officer told writer Jane Mayer.[14] They may have their own agendas for settling scores in local tribal vendettas.[15] In Afghanistan intelligence gathered in areas with a minimal presence of U.S. soldiers tends to be less reliable in distinguishing between combatants and noncombatants, resulting in a higher proportion of civilian casualties.[16]

Countering Terrorism?

Ethical questions about the use of drones concern not only the nature of the weapons but the policies they are meant to serve. The use of drone aircraft perpetuates the illusion that military force is an effective means of countering terrorism. We should know better by now. After ten years of combat in Afghanistan, the threat of terrorist attack and insurgent violence in the region remains as great as ever, with civilian casualties at their highest level since the U.N. began reporting such figures.[17]

No one denies the legitimacy of preventing terrorist attacks and suppressing the global threat from al Qaeda. The problem lies in the use of military force as the primary means of achieving that purpose. Terrorism is more a political and law enforcement challenge than a threat that can be addressed by military means. The RAND Corporation’s 2008 report How Terrorist Groups End shows that the primary factors accounting for the demise of 268 terrorist organizations over a nearly 40 year period were participation in political processes (43 percent) and effective policing (40 percent). Military force accounted for the end of terrorist groups in only 7 percent of the cases examined.[18]

The White House claims that drone strikes are aimed at al Qaeda, but most of the attacks in the region have killed low-level Taliban fighters. The Wall Street Journal reported in November 2011 that most CIA drone strikes in Pakistan are so-called “signature” strikes, which are directed at groups of lower-level operatives rather than specifically identified al Qaeda leaders.[19] A study by the New America Foundation found that fewer than 13 percent of strikes in Pakistan targeted al Qaeda. Of at least 1,400 militants killed, only 38 were identified as Taliban or al Qaeda leaders.[20] A Reuters report using government data found that CIA drone strikes since the summer of 2008 have killed far more low-level fighters than mid- to higher-level leaders.[21]

These findings alter the moral calculus of current policy and cast doubt on the claim that the drone war in the region is a just cause of strategic necessity. The Taliban insurgency differs significantly from al Qaeda. The Taliban is a locally grown, diverse network of Pashtun nationalists and dispossessed tribes seeking to remove foreign troops from their soil and control the Pashtun-majority parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al Qaeda is an Arab-based extremist movement with a global agenda of attacking western targets. Unlike the militants of al Qaeda, the Pashtun fighters of the Taliban do not have a transnational agenda and have not engaged in attacks beyond South Asia. There is no recorded incident of an Afghan Talib participating in a terrorist attack outside tribal regions.[22] However repugnant Taliban ideology may be, the Pashtun insurgency does not pose a threat to the security of the United States sufficient to justify large-scale military action and drone warfare.[23]

The White House claims its policies are reducing the chances of another terrorist strike in the United States, but drone strikes are fomenting greater anti-American hatred and creating support for the very militant movements their proponents claim to be suppressing. Former Australian military officer and Pentagon adviser David Kilcullen testified before Congress in March 2009 that drone strikes arouse “a feeling of anger that coalesces the population around the extremists” who vow to fight against such attacks.[24] Drone attacks also may be motivating so-called “lone wolf” extremists who have attempted terrorist strikes in the United States. Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani immigrant who failed in his attempt to bomb Times Square in 2010, testified that, “…until the hour the U.S. pulls it [sic] forces from Iraq and Afghanistan and stops the drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen and in Pakistan … we will be attacking [sic] U.S., and I plead guilty to that.”[25]


The moral basis of drone warfare is clouded further by the program’s secrecy and minimal public accountability. The Bush and Obama administrations have given authority for counterterrorism drone strikes to the CIA and the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command, JSOC. The CIA has a horrific history of criminality and incompetence, as recounted in Tim Weiner’s magisterial A Legacy of Ashes. Human rights lawyer Scott Horton expresses concern that this “marks the first time in U.S. history that a state-of-the-art, cutting-edge weapons system has been placed in the hands of the CIA.”[26] JSOC and CIA drone programs operate largely without public review or restraint. The only form of legislative “oversight” is notification of strikes after the fact to a few members of congressional Armed Services and Intelligence committees.

In an interview with Newsweek’s Tara Mckelvey, the CIA’s former acting general counsel referred to his work with drone attacks as “murder.”[27] The UN Special Rapporteur has criticized the lack of international legal justification for the drone warfare program as “a vaguely defined license to kill.”[28] Administration officials vehemently reject such claims, asserting that drone attacks comply with applicable laws of war, but the government refuses to address some of the most important legal issues involved.[29] It has not defined the scope of the war we claim to be fighting, the criteria for selecting individuals to be killed, or the safeguards and accountability mechanisms for preventing abuse.

The Obama administration may be taking a more aggressive stance toward killing alleged terrorists because of the political and legal difficulties of detaining and trying such suspects in the United States. According to American University’s Kenneth Anderson, “there is less reason to seek to capture rather than kill. And if one intends to kill, the incentive is to do so from a standoff position because it removes potentially messy questions of surrender.”[30]


The United States is increasing its commitment to drone warfare without regard for the risks these weapons pose to our security and moral standing in the world. Drone technology is spreading rapidly, with dozens of countries and even nonstate actors such as Hezbollah now developing or purchasing these systems. Military planners are developing autonomous drones that could make their own decisions on when to unleash lethal force.[31] If other nations follow our example as they often do, we will soon face the prospect of a world in which terror can rain down from the sky at any moment without warning. There is no long-term benefit to the United States in the unchecked proliferation of drone weapons or in the absence of agreed standards for limiting their use.

Drone strikes and targeted military operations stand in the way of a political solution to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The government of Afghanistan demands an end to U.S. military raids that violate Afghan homes. Pakistani officials want strict limits on drone strikes as a condition of their cooperation. Insurgent groups are using popular resentment at drone strikes to fan the flames of militancy. To overcome these obstacles and create a climate for reconciliation will require confidence-building measures and gestures of restraint. The United States could help by extending the current suspension of drone operations in Pakistan and halting targeted military operations in both countries.

The United States should work through the United Nations to convene an international conference for developing legal standards on the use of unmanned weapons. The goal should be to ensure that any military use of these systems complies fully with the laws of war, including international humanitarian law and human rights law. This would enhance our moral standing and strengthen U.S. and international security.


[1]Greg Miller, “Under Obama an emerging global apparatus for targeted killing,” Washington Post, December 28, 2011, (accessed December 29, 2011).

[2]Spencer Ackerman, “Libya: The Real U.S. Drone War,” Wired, October 20, 2011, (accessed December 29, 2011).

[3]Greg Miller, “Under Obama an emerging global apparatus for targeted killing,” Washington Post, December 28, 2011, l (accessed December 29, 2011).

[4]Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Preparing for Pakistanis to Curtail Ties,” New York Times, December 26, 2011, A1, A8.

[5]Hans J. Morgenthau, “Does Disarmament Mean Peace?” in Arms and Foreign Policy in the Nuclear Age, ed. Milton L. Rakove (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 422.

[6]“Numerous studies show that states with greater power capabilities are more likely than states with lesser capabilities to participate in and initiate wars.” Greg Cashman, Leonard C. Robinson. An introduction to the Causes of War: Patterns of Interstate Conflict from WWI to Iraq (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007), 10.

[7]Mary Ellen O’Connell, “Seductive Drones: Learning from a Decade of Lethal Operations,” Journal of Law, Information & Science, August 2011 (accessed December 28, 2011).

[8]United Kingdom Ministry of Defence, “The UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” Joint Doctrine Note 2/11 (March 2011): 5-9.

[9]P.W. Singer, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 316-321.

[10]Mary L. Dudziak, “To Whom is a Drone Loyal?Balkinization, posted September 29, 2009, cited in Megan Braun and Daniel Brunstetter, “The implications of drones on the just war tradition,” Ethics and International Affairs 25, no. 3 (September 2011): 354.

[11]UN Human Rights Council: Report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, 28 May 2010, A/HRC/14/24/Add.6 (accessed December 26, 2011) (pdf).

[12]Ken Dilanian, “U.S. counter-terrorism strategy to rely on surgical strikes, unmanned drones,” Los Angeles Times, June 29, 2011 (accessed December 26, 2011).

[13]Chris Woods, “Drone War Exposed – the complete picture of CIA strikes in Pakistan,” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (August 10, 2011), (accessed December 26, 2011).

[14]Jane Mayer, “The Predator War: What are the risks of the C.I.A.’s covert drone program?,” New Yorker, October 26, 2009.

[15]Lane Hartill, “Sifting intelligence tips from vendettas in Afghanistan,” Christian Science Monitor, January 26, 2006, (accessed December 26, 2011).

[16]Alex Bellamy, “Is the War on Terror Just?” International Relations 19, no. 3 (2005): 28; Natalino Ronzitti, The Law of Air Warfare: Contemporary Issues (Utrecht: Eleven International Publishing, 2006) 311-312.

[17]U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. Afghanistan Midyear Report 2011: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict. Kabul, Afghanistan, July 2011.

[18]Seth G. Jones and Martin C. Libicki, How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering Al Qa’ida, 2nd ed. (Rand Publishing, 2008).

[19]Adam Entous, Siobhan Gorman, and Julian E. Barnes, “U.S. Tightens Drone Rules,” Wall Street Journal, November 4, 2011, A 16.

[20]New America Foundation, “2010: The Year of the Drone: An Analysis of U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan, 2004-2011,” Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative, (accessed December 21, 2011).

[21]Thomas J. Billitteri, “Drone Warfare: The Issues,” CQ Researcher 20, no. 28 (August 2010): 655; Adam Entous, “Special Report: How the White House Learned to Love the Drone,” Reuters, May 18, 2010, (accessed December 26, 2011).

[22]Jeffrey Thomas, “Transnational Terrorist Networks: The Afghanistan-Pakistan Connection,” Center for the Study of the Presidency and the Congress (August 18, 2011), (accessed December 26, 2011); see also Jason Burke, “Misreading the Taliban,” Prospect Magazine no. 152 (November 2008), cited in Thomas Ruttig, “How Tribal Are the Taleban? Afghanistan’s Largest Insurgent Movement between its Tribal Roots and Islamist Ideology,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, Thematic Report (June 2010): 16-17.

[23]Selig S. Harrison, Pakistan: The State of the Union (Washington, DC: Center for International Policy, 2009), 33.

[24]Congress, Committee on Armed Services, Effective Counterinsurgency: The Future of the U.S. Pakistan Military Partnership, 111th Cong., 1st sess., 23 April 2009, 21.

[25]Andrea Elliot, “Militant’s Path from Pakistan to Times Square,” New York Times, June 22, 2010, (accessed December 26, 2011); Preet Bharara, “Prosecution of Faisal Shahzad,” Offices of the United States Attorneys, United States Department of Justice, (accessed December 26, 2011).

[26]Scott Horton, “The Trouble with Drones,” Harper’s Magazine, May 3, 2010, (accessed December 26, 2011).

[27]Tara Mckelvey, “Inside the Killing Machine,” Newsweek, February 13, 2011.

[28]UN Human Rights Council: Report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, 28 May 2010, A/HRC/14/24/Add.6, (accessed December 26, 2011) (pdf) par. 3.


[30]Anderson, Kenneth, “Targeted Killing in U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy and Law,” Counterterrorism and American Statutory Law no. 9 (May 11, 2009), (accessed December 26, 2011).

[31]Peter Finn, “A future for drones: Automated killing,” Washington Post, September 19, 2011, (accessed December 30, 2011); A recent article in the Journal of Military Ethics argued that battlefield atrocities can be eliminated through the “ethical autonomy of unmanned systems,” giving machines the power to kill people. See R.C. Arkin, “The Case for Ethical Autonomy in Unmanned Systems,” Journal of Military Ethics 9 no. 4 (2010): 338-39.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • David Cortright argues that drones are making warfare cheaper and less visceral — for us. This may sound like a good thing, but it also means that we may be drawn into more wars, and we may inflict more harm on innocent bystanders. This collateral harm is not only immoral, it’s also against our best interests, because it encourages terrorist retribution against us.

Response Essays

  • Benjamin Wittes and Ritika Singh argue that drones certainly do increase the distance at which deadly force can be delivered. In this they resemble the large majority of weapons that have ever been developed. Humanitarians, they add, should welcome drones’ precision, which makes possible a new level of caution in avoiding civilian bystanders. They conclude that the question is not whether the United States can prevent drones from proliferating. It is whether the United States will lead or follow in this new field of military technology.

  • Daniel Goure argues that if drones are making warfare more deadly, it’s certainly not showing up in the aggregate numbers. Casualties and warfare itself have declined substantially in recent years—and, he suggests, drones might be one part of the reason why. Drones remain a small part of our overall military forces to date. They are overwhelmingly used for nonviolent purposes such as surveillance. When they do exert deadly force, they often accomplish objectives that would have been impossible without them, barring a full-scale invasion. Legitimate concerns do exist over specific acts perpetrated via drone technology, but there is at least a plausible case that drones in general are making warfare less deadly, not more.

  • Tom Barry argues that the U.S. Congress and other policymakers have uncritically accepted drone warfare as both effective and cheap, with little regard to its actual costs and benefits. Defense contractors obviously stand to gain a great deal, and they have recently been lobbying to ease restrictions on drone technology export controls. The United States should lead the way in forming international agreements to prevent the proliferation of these high-tech weapons. At home, the proliferation of drones in drug enforcement and other local law enforcement tasks is also a worrying trend.